A fifty-state strategy for course choice

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their impact?

As might be expected, online learning is part of the package, but course choice goes further: it allows K–12 students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals. Moreover, these options can meet students where they are—in terms of geography, interest, and prior achievement—and, if designed properly, can fit the political and cultural contours of each community.

In devising such policies, state officials will need to tackle and resolve knotty questions about funding levels, what sorts of courses should be offered, which students may participate, and how course providers (and pupils themselves) can be held accountable for results. Our new paper seeks to help frame the options and explain some of the advantages and disadvantages that come with them. And it spotlights early-adopter Louisiana to show how that state’s lawmakers chose to answer such questions.

Course choice is no cure-all. It will face its own political hurdles and implementation challenges. And traditional school choice is still a worthy strategy for pupils whose present schools are struggling academically or ill-suited to their interests and circumstances. But well-wrought course-choice policies have the potential to customize learning and widen educational opportunities for millions more youngsters across America.

When considering such policies, the biggest tension is apt to arise over the question of control—of options, of resources, of children’s education programs, and of quality. Is course choice mainly a resource for school districts to deploy—under their control? Is it mainly something that families should be free to exercise as they see fit, outside the constraints of brick-and-mortar schools and districts? Or is it some combination of the two?

A related tension: where should course-choice policies originate? States are not the only possibility. A growing number of districts, schools, and even classrooms have enacted local versions by taking advantage of high-quality but low-cost (or free) online resources.

Some districts have also developed partnerships with local colleges and universities. The next step for bold district-level leaders will be to enact policies that seek out the best content, regardless of source, and deliver it to their students in order to provide the best education possible. They need not wait for their states to initiate such changes.

The third tension: who pays? Traditionally, school districts are responsible for both running and paying for their schools (with significant support from state and federal governments), and some critics insist that any other arrangement represents a perilous move toward “privatization.” But in many instances, these course providers are non-profits or even other schools. For that matter, what if they’re colleges or nonprofit groups? Does the child’s school district pay the cost? Does the state? The parents? Who decides what price is reasonable? How many kids can take how many such courses? Who controls this money? Who generates it?

Tension four: whose students are these, anyway? What if Molly takes all but one or two of her courses from course providers? Is she still a student at Madison High School? Does it still confer her diploma? Is it still the school’s job to determine whether she has truly fulfilled state or district graduation requirements? If not the school, then who? For that matter, even if Molly takes just one or two courses from outside sources, who determines whether she has truly “passed” them—and met the state’s standards for those subjects? Who confers her grade? How does that grade figure into her GPA or get reported to colleges she may want to attend?

None of these questions is trivial and none will be satisfactorily answered without serious consideration, weighing of options, and resolution of controversies over power, money, responsibility, and more. Our paper is intended to frame some of the key alternatives available to policymakers working their way through such dilemmas associated with course choice. We acknowledge that it’s complicated. But we’re convinced that it’s worth working out. We take for granted that states will reach different decisions, according to their needs, their resources, their political circumstances—and their courage.

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